Conflict Resolution

Posted by Marilyn Townsend-Smith on August 26, 2014

Matthew 18:15-20

There is a lot of focus on Conflict Resolution these days.  I am forever getting emails offering courses in conflict resolution.  It seems that there is a lot of conflict in our world and also in our churches.  People are always shocked that there exists conflict in the church.  They expect that because the church is made up of  Christians there should not be any conflict.  The church should be the place where everyone is good, kind, loving and where no one every gossips or spreads rumours or disagrees on any subject.  They accept that the secular world is imperfect, power hungry and money grubbing, but they expect the church to be a holy, monastic community.  Well surprise surprise.  The church is comprised of the same people who live in the secular world.  Sometimes when people discover the truth about the church, they either withdraw, lose their enthusiasm, or go church shopping,  looking for a church that will provide that ever elusive “perfect” environment which they seek.  People are bound to disagree on some matters.  What the church does offer though, is a Biblical model for conflict resolution.  That is what our Gospel message is about today.

One of the interesting things about Jesus is that though he was divinely incarnate, he was not divinely naive.  He knew there were going to be disagreements and fights when well-intentioned people got together in his name.  He knew it wouldn’t be easy.  So in this passage he sets up a way for dealing with disputes.

Just as in a marriage, the issue was never whether there would be fights; the issue has always been whether people were going to fight fair.  A marriage, a friendship, and a church are a lot alike in this respect.  The front of one anniversary card sent to a couple married for twenty years spells out the four stages of marriage: first is the honeymoon, then the shock of reality, the adjustment stage and finally the stage of quiet contentment.  inside the card it reads, “If you two don’t hurry, you’ll never get past the honeymoon stage”.  The fact is, sooner or later, everyone gets past the honeymoon stage and if you can live through it all, if there is good communication and compatibility, you can grow to a richer and fuller depth of intimacy than ever experienced in the honeymoon stage.  Honesty, understanding, friendship, especially in the crisis moments, get you through.  Unfortunately, not all marriages survive and for them there should be nothing but lots of love and support, especially from the church.

The issue isn’t whether there will be disagreement.  The issue is “will you fight fair? ”  Jesus lays down some ground rules for fair fighting.  Jesus is saying that we should never tolerate any situation in which there is a breach of personal relationships between us and another member of the Christian community.  When something goes wrong, what do we do about it?  What Jesus is doing here is presenting a whole scheme of action for the mending of broken relationships within Christian fellowship.

First, he recommends straight talk.  Be clear and straightforward about  the concern.  Deal with it directly.  Don’t embarrass that person in public, deal with it one-on-one.  Don’t do it on the telephone or through a text or email.  The written word can be misinterpreted.  Do it in person and be direct.

That’s not always easy to do.  When my son was much younger, his girlfriend of ten years broke up with him in an email.  Not nice.  if we have a problem with someone, have the courage and integrity to tell them face to face.  Communication is key.  If we keep silent then walls build up between us and the other person and before you know it, the wall has become insurmountable.

To speak the truth in a loving and genuine way is sometimes difficult.  So if straight, direct communication does not work, Jesus recommends getting others involved.  It is called due process.  Take it to the elders.  Try to settle it out of court with a few wise, patient and loving friends.  If the person still refuses to listen, then Jesus says to be done with them.  Show them the door.

The problem with this is that Jesus would never have said this.  Practically all the commentators agree that this is the early church talking, working off the old rabbinical saying, “Love thy neighbour, hate thine enemy.”  Jesus has transformed that saying to “Love thy neighbour as thyself and even love thine enemy.”

So how do we deal with one with whom we have a problem?  Talk straight first, speaking the truth in love.  If that doesn’t work, get others involved.  When that fails, don’t take the early church’s advice; but rather go with the intention of Jesus’ full gospel message.  In the end, remember grace.  Grace is the bottom line when dealing with conflict because you never know how your actions and words toward another are going to affect the world.

It seems that there is a magic number that must be achieved before anything really gets accomplished.  We often use a majority of 51% in order to get something done.  sometimes a two-thirds majority can effect change.  For Jesus the magic number is “two or three gathered in His name.

Though you wouldn’t know it today, the church was intended to be bureaucratically streamlined.  Jesus insisted to his disciples that valid Christian judgements and decisions could be achieved when only two believing members of the Christ-body community gathered together with faithful hearts and minds.

We don’t need a consensus.  We don’t need a quorum in attendance.  We don’t need a standing committee established.  We don’t need a long-range plan developed.  We don’t need an Executive Board action.  We don’t need a regional evaluation or investigation.  We don’t need two-thirds, 51 percent or a simple majority of those present.  We don’t need district superintendents, presbytery reps., Conference involvement, ordained ministers of any kind in order to make valid, binding decisions within the living body of Christ.  We do need the mind of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  With Christ, the community of faith can move forward even though perhaps only two or three are gathered in His name.  Without Christ’s presence, not even an assembly of ten thousand can achieve results that will empower the church for the future.

Too often our enthusiasm for organization gets us sidetracked away from the power of two or three believers.  We have created such a system of hierarchies and structures of authority that we forget that Christ chose a much simpler way to be among us.  That is not to say that sometimes big projects and big plans for the church don’t take large numbers of people working at a multitude of carefully coordinated tasks.  Christ can also be present in a crowd.  But we cannot forget that all fellowships of Christ start small where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name.  We need to celebrate this heritage and rejoice in the fact that the church is truly an example of every member ministry.

Look at the person sitting on your right and then at the person sitting on your left.  The three of you can literally change the world.  That’s all it takes.  Two or three, gathered in Christ’s name.  Christianity is founded on the principle that two or three committed believers can change the world.  Together, the prayers and faith of two or three can work the most astounding miracles this world has ever seen.  You can incarnate the presence of Christ in this world.  If you join together, three people is all that is necessary for Christ’s love to become a vital force on earth.

How do we deal with those who have caused problems for us?  Jesus has the answer.  With straight talk, due process, but most of all, with grace.  Are we going to be a two or three gathered this morning?  Will we in brining about the church for a new day?  It is possible, with the grace of God.  Amen.